No matter where we go, our travel memories tend to group themselves around archetypal events that cross almost all cultures. Part hero’s journey, part fool’s paradise, travel is the act of leaving and returning with memories and stories that define who we are.
Below are 13 iconic travel moments that seem to arise regardless of what place we’re visiting, what particular mission we’ve arrived with, or what expectations we had in our minds before we got there.
You leave so early it feels like you’re dreaming.
One of the great things about travel is how it disrupts our regular patterns and cycles. Sometimes the simple act of starting a trip super early in the morning, leaving home at a time you’d never leave normally, seeing things you don’t usually see — this moment can be dreamlike, feeling almost like a memory even as you’re experiencing it.
You start to feel epic.
Once you’re on the plane and airborne, there’s a naturally epic feeling. Part of what’s so amazing is the sheer number of people — from airplane mechanics to air traffic controllers to engineers to service employees — both visible and behind the scenes, who make this moment of departure seem effortless. And part of it’s just moving tens of thousands of feet above the land.
You find a crew.
One of the most joyful moments of travel is finding a crew of friends. For young travelers, this is often at a hostel or campground or through couchsurfing. Half of finding a crew is body language, a certain look in the eye, an onda as you’d say in Spanish. A desire to link up with other people and share your experiences with them.
You have one of the most compelling conversations of your life with a random stranger you’ll never meet again.
Conversations with strangers on the road can be arresting, unforgettable moments, when you’re not worrying about how you sound or present yourself, and as such something spontaneous and original emerges.
You end up in a place you never could’ve imagined.
Travel usually centers on some target destination — say Corfu, Greece. But it’s always the unexpected series of events — a new friend’s offer to take a boat ride to Lefkada — that lead to a place that shatters all expectations you might’ve had.
You feel extremely alone.
Despite meeting new friends and visiting new places, traveling long enough and deep enough always leads to moments of loneliness. It’s sometimes in these introspective moments that we realize things about home we may have overlooked or taken for granted.
You scare yourself.
It doesn’t have to be cliff jumping. There are all kinds of heart-racing moments on the road. The bus driver in Brazil turning so sharp the bus goes on two wheels, or deciding to get up in front of 200 people and sing “Maggie May.” Chances are if you’re not scaring yourself at least a few times on a trip, you’re not really traveling.
You realize you’re starting to know the place.
There comes a moment — say, sitting in the afternoon sun in a plaza on Calle Defensa after two weeks in Buenos Aires — where suddenly you realize that after days of stumbling around the grid of streets, you feel a certain familiarity with the place and, with it, a kind of tenderness.
You’re reminded that poverty exists almost everywhere.
It could be Toronto, a small town in Patagonia, or the streets of San Francisco. The soaring feeling of travel is almost always brought back down to earth a few times each trip by the piercing reminder that so many others are less fortunate.
You observe ways of life you can’t comprehend.
Beyond seeing impoverished individuals, sometimes the most impactful moments of our travels are when we see people living in places or ways we simply register without comprehending, such as this shantytown built on a landfill in Ica, Peru.
You experience everything as a blur.
After enough flights and layovers and more flights and bus rides and hotel rooms and shuttles and map reading, travel can start to feel as if it exists on its own parallel form of time, blurred and edgeless.
You hear the best music of your life.
Sometimes it’s feeding off the energy of seeing a familiar band only in a different culture; other times it’s just a poignant phrase from a street musician, the way their rhythm is so unfamiliar but in some way describes your experience so perfectly at that moment in time.
You meet someone who breaks your heart.
It might not happen on every trip, but for most people who travel long enough there are romantic relationships on the road, some near misses, some merely unrequited crushes, some fulfilled, some fully botched. Either way, most of them stay with you forever.